The extent to which wild animals are similar to humans has been a recent source of contention in the documentary world: In the just-like-us camp, there was March Of The Penguins, which identified human-like feelings of love and devotion in the mating patterns of emperor penguins. In the opposing the-fuck-they-are camp, Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man warned of the dangers of such mushy-headed anthropomorphizing, which cost self-proclaimed Alaskan grizzly “protector” Timothy Treadwell his life. James Marsh’s riveting documentary Project Nim explores the murky ethical and emotional territory between those two extremes, recalling a deeply flawed experiment to raise a chimpanzee like a human child. The odyssey of Nim Chimpsky, a chimp handed over to a human mother at birth and taught to communicate through sign language, reveals not only the fuzzy line separating just-like-us from the-fuck-they-are, but the noble and destructive sides of human nature, too.
Much like Marsh’s previous documentary, the excellent Man On Wire, Project Nim borrows a page or nine from the Errol Morris handbook, crafting its extraordinary story out of an operatic mix of crisply framed interviews, archival footage, and well-staged recreations. The brainchild of Columbia University behavioral psychologist Herb Terrace, the Nim Chimpsky experiment began in 1973, when Terrace elected to hand the newborn chimp over to Stephanie LaFarge, a warmly maternal woman (and Terrace’s ex-lover) who brought the animal into her home. Right away, the traditional rigors of a laboratory were out the window. Attempts to bring Nim back to Columbia for testing proved highly inadequate, and LaFarge’s permissive style as a nurturer proved so problematic that the chimp was taken from her. So commenced a long—and for the animal, severely traumatizing—series of caretakers and different living situations, from a lush estate run like a commune to a hellish laboratory for medical experiments.
In telling this story, Marsh gets everyone on the record, including Terrace, who comes across as the unwitting villain of the affair, and the scientists, academics, and animal-rights activists who were all clearly touched by their contact with Nim. Much as Terrace tried to distance himself from the results of the experiment—which didn’t conform to any scientific standards—Nim’s journey testifies to the extent he was and wasn’t like a human. And to an equal extent, Project Nim shows the human capacity for cruelty and narcissism as well as compassion and selflessness. It’s an endlessly fascinating, moving documentary, exploring the behavioral spectrum that separates us from the animals.